GLOBAL DEFENSE MARKET
JUST IN: Australian Company Paying to Bring U.S. Drone Down Under
Shield AI image
SYDNEY — Large bats are a regular sight in the Australian sky, and a defense company is seeking to add another species to the ecosystem, specifically the V-BAT, a Group 3 drone manufactured by Shield AI.
Australia’s Toll Aviation teamed up in August with Shield AI in hopes of convincing the Australian military that the vertical takeoff and landing V-BAT meets critical unmanned aerial systems needs, said Andrew Crowe, senior project manager of emerging aviation and uncrewed systems at Toll.
“We see a lot of different options for this, anything really where we have vast spaces — and funnily enough, in Australia we have vast spaces across the land and vast spaces across the ocean,” Crowe said on the sidelines of the Indo Pacific 2023 International Maritime Exposition in Sydney Nov. 7.
In particular, the Royal Australian Navy has a maritime UAS capability gap since the service decided to hold off on the acquisition of the CAMCOPTER S-100 UAS, he said.
“They need something,” he said. “We don't know when we're going to actually have to operate these things in a time of conflict. So, the ability to quickly and rapidly deploy these things is really important,” and it can fit on just about any ship in the navy.
The 9-foot-long V-BAT, which is in use by the U.S. Marine Corps and other services around the world, is powered by a two-stroke engine that drives a ducted fan that launches the UAS like a SpaceX rocket, said Mike Hanlin, director of international strategy and business development at Shield AI.
“The whole system, not just the aircraft, packs into the back of a pickup truck, a helicopter or a ruggedized hull inflatable boat,” he said. “So, the expeditionary nature of it, the safety of it, the true VTOL capability is a game changer in the UAS space, while providing all the capability that your traditional and competitive UAVs provide.”
Although the drone can be launched and recovered from land, 90 percent of the use so far has been at sea, because of the small footprint, ease of maintaining the modular system and safety, he said.
The V-BAT can fly up to 10 hours and at a range of 130 kilometers with almost 12 kilograms of payload. “And that payload is split between the nose and the belly,” Hanlin said. “The nose carries your wide-area search, full-motion video, and the belly has a slew of different things. It can be extra fuel, it can be a synthetic-aperture radar, signals intelligence or in some cases, weapons.”
Last month, Shield unveiled V-BAT Teams, a modular NVIDIA GPU that runs Shield’s Hivemind AI pilot. The technology enables V-BAT to fly “in teams of three in the United States on a U.S.-funded program, and it will be demonstrable internationally in teams of three in the third quarter of next year,” he added.
The V-BAT can be operated by two-person teams, and a single ground control station can fly three drones, which reduces the personnel needs significantly compared to other UAS, he said.
Crowe said Toll is flipping the script on the acquisition process and taking the V-BAT to the potential customers.
“We're going to invest in it; we're going to fund it; we're going to bring it to Australia,” he said. “And we're going to run an operators’ course in the first quarter of next year.”
The Toll-funded course will allow any agency or service “that may be interested, whether it be Army, Navy, Air Force … whoever, to come along and actually try the system and see how the system operates. Off the back of the training course, after about 10 weeks, we'll then go and look at doing some demonstrations across Australia” to talk about operating the V-BAT off border force and defense vessels and off land.
“We're gonna fund that because we see the value in in doing that and kind of meeting defense and other agencies halfway in that acquisition process,” he said.